Steve McQueen as Ralph “Papa” Thorson, real-life bounty hunter
Los Angeles (among other locales), Fall 1979
Film: The Hunter
Release Date: August 1, 1980
Director: Buzz Kulik
Costume Designer: Thomas Welsh
On the anniversary of Steve McQueen’s passing, I’d like to explore his style in the final film he made before his untimely death at the age of 50 on November 7, 1980.
The Hunter starred McQueen as Ralph “Papa” Thorson, a colorful real-life bounty hunter who had reportedly logged more than 5,000 cases throughout his career including the capture of would-be presidential assassin and Manson family follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme.
The concept of a bounty hunter conjures the image of a deadly serious and dangerous enforcer. The real Ralph Thorson certainly looked the part at 310 pounds and 6’2″ though Christopher Keane’s 1976 biography counters this image by describing Thorson’s many roles and talents as “a church bishop, Master bridge champion, renowed astrology, criminology alumnus of the University of California Berkeley, child nutritionist, [and] aficionado of classical music.”
As Thorson himself was professionally driven by astrology, often “picking the right astrological moment to hunt the man down,” it’s worth noting that Thorson was born on July 11, 1926, meaning that his own astrological sign was Cancer. As a fellow Cancer (July 21), I can say that our shared sign and its associations with emotion, empathy, and sensitivity often aligns us more with the role of a caregiver rather than a bounty hunter, perhaps lending some credence to Sue Lyon’s remembrance of Thorson as “the only man I know who can do a bastard’s job with taste and come off looking like a nice guy.” In fact, it may have been Thorson’s softer side that made him so effective at his job, and he often made an effort to help the criminals whose bounties he collected by counseling them, helping them find jobs, and even allowing some to live in his home.
Much of this is made evident in The Hunter which supposedly incorporated many incidents from the real Papa’s life onto the screen. Richie Blumenthal (Eli Wallach) and Dottie (Kathryn Harrold) were both real, though the real Dottie and her son Kenny Barras had moved in with Thorson in 1965 as opposed to the film’s depiction of Dottie’s first pregnancy being with Thorson’s baby. In fact, the real Dottie and Kenny would later take over Thorson’s business after Papa was reportedly killed by a car bomb in 1994.
Tommy Price (LeVar Burton) wasn’t based directly on a real person, instead representing the dozens of Papa’s former bounties that lived in his home for a period while he would help them find jobs. Art imitated life in Burton’s case as the character wasn’t originally in the script, but McQueen liked his work so much that he had the part of Tommy specifically written for Burton.
What’d He Wear?
Much is made in The Hunter of Papa Thorson’s preference for all things old rather than new, and it’s thus logical that a consistent staple of his on-screen wardrobe is a tried-and-true MA-1 flight jacket. The MA-1 is an efficiently clean-looking jacket with slanted side pockets with flaps, a zip-up utility pocket on the left sleeve, and a ribbed knit collar, cuffs, and waistband.
McQueen’s nylon bomber jacket is sage green, the U.S. military’s slightly grayer version of the well known olive drab (OD), and was likely made by Alpha Industries, a military subcontractor founded in 1959 after the dissolution of Dobbs Industries.
Dobbs had been awarded its first military contract to manufacture U.S. military outerwear in 1958, a year after the company was founded in Knoxville, but management issues led to suspension of the contract and formation of Alpha Industries. On September 1, 1963, Alpha was awarded its first contract to manufacture the “Jacket, Flyer’s Man Intermediate, MA-1” for the U.S. Air Force and Alpha continues to produce them for the civilian market to this day.
The exact jacket worn by McQueen was most recently sold at a Profiles in History auction in December 2012, described as a “standard-issue green padded nylon U.S. Air Force jacket, with orange inner lining and zipper closure.”
The MA-1 flight jacket was first developed in the late 1940s as a response to the greater comfort, safety, and performance needs of aviators in the rapidly innovating Jet Age. The nylon construction of the new B-15 and MA-1 jackets also marked a departure from the traditional leather outerwear worn by earlier pilots as leather was more prone to retaining water that would freeze at high altitudes and constricting movement in the confined space of a jet cockpit.
Evolved from the U.S. Air Force’s first synthetic jacket, the B-15, the sleek new MA-1 jacket in nylon responded to these needs as a lightweight yet warm outer layer that could be comfortably worn all year round. This comfort was reinforced when the wool interlining (between the nylon shell and the nylon inner lining) was replaced with polyester fiber that enhanced both the warmth and the lightness. The MA-1 also improved upon the B-15 by replacing that jacket’s warm but interfering mouton fur collar with a simple wool knit collar that matches the collar and cuffs.
Midnight blue was the original color, but the military quickly adopted it in sage green for adaptability on the ground.
McQueen appears to be wearing an MA-1 manufactured by Alpha Industries with all the original mil-spec details including the slanted set-in hand pockets that each close with a single-snap flap. The jacket also has the traditional wool knit collar, cuffs, and waistband although Alpha Industries innovated the practice of using a slightly more durable wool-acrylic blend according to this fascinating read from Third Looks on the history of the MA-1.
One of the signature aspects of the MA-1 is the utility pocket on the left sleeve with a vertical zipper and two pen slots to be easily accessed by a pilot in mid-flight. According to Third Looks, this pocket was originally called a cigarette pocket (rather a sign of the times) and involved eight of the jacket’s 57 separate sewing operations.
One innovation made to the MA-1 around 1960 is bright “Indian Orange” emergency lining that could be worn reversibly in the event that a pilot was stranded and needed to serve as his own rescue signal. The lining has two vertical pockets that each close with a snap, giving the wearer more storage space and allowing the wearer to have more easily accessible outer pockets the jacket is worn in reverse.
This distinctive orange lining gets plenty of screen time in The Hunter and McQueen’s Thorson even keeps his large M1911A1 pistol inside the left inner pocket.
Alpha Industries, an original maker of the MA-1 bomber jacket in the 1950s and the manufacturer of McQueen’s screen-worn jacket, still manufactures the MA-1, available for $150 in a variety of colors including the original mil-spec “sage green” (à la McQueen and the USAF) in addition to black, gunmetal, maroon, navy, and “replica blue”. Alpha Industries flight jackets are also available (and typically for a pretty good discount) on Amazon.
While there is little variety in McQueen’s choice of outerwear in The Hunter, he does cycle through several different shirts over the course of the film.
For the opening pursuit of Tommy Price in Texas, McQueen wears a blue-on-navy shadow plaid flannel shirt with a point collar, patch pocket on the left chest, and single-button cuffs. The front placket buttons up with large pearl-effect plastic buttons that match the single button on each cuff. He appears to be wearing a white cotton long-sleeve undershirt that pokes out under his shirt sleeves occasionally.
There is light contrast stitching through the shirt on the collar, placket, and cuffs.
For a few scenes set around Los Angeles when Papa isn’t strictly on the job, he wears a bright blue crew-neck short-sleeve t-shirt. (It’s similar to the one that McQueen is seen wearing in set photos from the production of Papillon in 1973, but this one has no pocket.)
When Thorson travels from L.A. to rural Nebraska in pursuit of the hell-raising Branch brothers, he wears a white dress shirt with alternating stripes in thin navy and wider beige. This shirt has a point collar, breast pocket, and button cuffs.
Finally, Thorson’s shirt for the climactic showdowns with Tommy Bernardo in Chicago to Rocco Mason in L.A. is pale blue with thin, widely spaced navy stripes. Like his other striped dress shirt featured above, it has a front placket and button cuffs, but it differs with its narrower point collar and no pocket.
“Hey! When are you gonna stop wearing those baggy pants?” facetiously asks Thorson’s unstable cop buddy Paul Spota (Richard Venture). I’m not sure if Spota’s comment was meant to be tongue-in-cheek as McQueen’s medium-light blue denim Lee jeans are rather form-fitting though not nearly as tight as those worn by the Duke boys during the same era.
Founded in 1889, Lee’s pedigree would certainly qualify it for the Thorson’s preference for “old” things. Among the company’s innovations are the zipper fly which first appeared on Lee jeans in the late 1920s.
McQueen’s Lee jeans can be identified by the “lazy S” stitching on the back pockets (introduced in 1944) and the brand’s trademark gold-on-black brand patch in the upper right corner of the back right pocket.
For the most part, Papa Thorson’s wardrobe is simple and practical. His one embellishment (if you will) is a big brass belt buckle with an embossed oval, worn on the front of his smooth brown leather belt and consistent with the “old-time cowboy” image of bounty hunters that Sheriff Strong (Ben Johnson) calls out when they meet.
The “old-time lawman” vibe ends before we get to Thorson’s feet as he wears a pair of tan sneakers that certainly breaks from his tradition of classic menswear staples. Thorson wears JOX by Thom McAn cross country sneakers, an inexpensive shoe marketed toward non-athletes (“You don’t have to be one to wear them,” according to its ad copy) at a sub-$20 price point. Thorson’s trainers have been identified by some as the cosmetically similar Onitsuka Tigers by ASICS, but the cross-stripes on the side and the “JOX” on the tongue tag help ID this particular footwear as the JOX brand.
Thorson’s JOX sneakers are tan suede and canvas with brown side accents and brown laces. He wears them with dark navy cotton tube socks.
Steve McQueen fittingly wore his personal timepiece, a stainless Rolex Submariner, for his final role in The Hunter. The watch, which he also wore on screen in 1974’s The Towering Inferno, has been identified as a ref. 5512 Submariner, a more precise and less common sibling of the cosmetically similar ref. 5513. You can learn more about McQueen’s Rolex and other watches at Rolex Magazine and Unwound by Crown & Caliber.
McQueen wears his Rolex with a stainless steel “Oyster” bracelet on his right wrist.
McQueen is often associated with iconic eyewear like his large-framed Persol sunglasses, but the only glasses to make an appearance in The Hunter are a pair of dark brown rectangular-framed readers that he briefly wears when booking his bounties.
Go Big or Go Home
There are many instances where the character seems to be a blend of the real Ralph “Papa” Thorson and Steve McQueen himself. Obviously, McQueen’s stature greatly differs from the more imposing Thorson, but McQueen also brought his own possessions to the character such as his Rolex and his vast toy collection that he’s often seen tinkering with on screen.
This being Steve McQueen, we’re naturally treated to some excellent – damn near gratuitous, even – car scenes, though it was supposedly McQueen’s own idea to subvert his own image as a talented race car driver by portraying Thorson as a terrible driver. (One can only wonder what the real Papa Thorson thought of that editorial decision.
Thorson’s own car in The Hunter is presented as a butter yellow 1951 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe convertible with a column-shifted three-speed manual transmission (as opposed to the two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission that Chevy had introduced the previous year) and powered by the “Blue Flame six” 235-cubic inch six-cylinder engine that developed 92 horsepower, the only engine option for 1949-1952 Chevrolet models with the “Deluxe” trim line. The screen-used ’51 Chevy sold for $84,000 in a 2013 auction.
When Papa gets to Nebraska in pursuit of the Branch brothers, he is presented at the airfield with his rental car, a “new” 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. One would normally expect a McQueen character to be enthused about being handed such a ride, but not so for our reluctant driver. The black and gold hardtop Trans Am has a four-speed manual transmission which, by default, makes it one of the 2,485 Trans Ams built that year with a 400 cubic-inch V8 engine (and no T-top roof.) Unfortunately, Papa doesn’t get to hold onto the car for long and it finds its way into the hands of the wild Branch brothers who promptly trash it and accidentally blow themselves up in it.
Papa’s final on-screen set of wheels is a mint green 1979 Pontiac Grand Prix, similar to the two-tone green Grand Prix that his prey – criminal Tommy Bernardo – would still and eventually drive into the Chicago River in a scene that would later be parodied by an Allstate Insurance commercial in 2006.
What to Imbibe
Steve McQueen’s Thorson throws back plenty of booze over the course of The Hunter, and even the real Ralph “Papa” Thorson makes an appearance as a bartender who serves McQueen one of his many libations.
During his opening pursuit of Tommy Price in Texas, McQueen’s Thorson stops into a bar and orders “…beer?” He is given a pony bottle of Budweiser which he pours into a beer flute glass. This appears to be the only case of Papa drinking “on the job”, though he doesn’t drink too much before meeting Price outside with his .45 drawn.
Later, Thorson drops by to check on his old friend Paul Spota, a suicidal and corrupt ex-cop whose home is littered with bottles of Seagram’s, Smirnoff, and Cutty Sark. The latter appears to be Spota’s booze of choice, and he pours a dram of Scotch for both he and Papa.
Following his rough day with Spota, Thorson returns home and grabs the first whiskey he sees – a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey on the bar – and pours himself a few rounds before heading out to a local bar (where McQueen’s character is served by the real Thorson.)
The next morning, Papa groggily wakes up in the front seat of his Chevy and finds a near-empty flask bottle of booze. The label looks familiar, but I can’t identify the brand, though it appears to be two words that begin “Su… Br…”
How to Get the Look
Steve McQueen’s established uniform as Ralph Thorson in The Hunter is an olive nylon MA-1 bomber jacket, Lee jeans, big gold belt buckle, Rolex Submariner, and tan JOX sneakers.
- Sage green nylon Alpha Industries MA-1 bomber jacket with knit collar, knit cuffs, knit blouson-style waistband, zip-up front with long black pull tab, slanted set-in side pockets with single-snap flaps, zip-up utility pocket on left sleeve, and two back darts
- Blue-on-navy plaid flannel shirt with front placket, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Lee jeans in medium-light blue denim with belt loops, zip fly, and standard five-pocket layout
- Brown leather belt with brass oval-embossed buckle
- JOX by Thom McAn tan suede and canvas cross-country sneakers with brown accents and brown laces
- Dark navy cotton tube socks
- Rolex Submariner 5512 with stainless steel case, black bezel and dial, and stainless “Oyster” bracelet
Alpha Industries and Lee are still going strong today, and you can replicate McQueen’s look in The Hunter with:
- Alpha Industries MA-1 Flight Jacket in “sage green” (Amazon and for $150 at alphaindustries.com)
- Lee Regular Fit Straight Leg Jeans in “vintage stonewash” heavyweight denim, 100% 13 oz. cotton (Amazon and for $44 at lee.com)
Papa Thorson keeps his Chevy’s trunk full of firearms, but his preferred sidearm is a tried-and-true M1911A1 pistol that he typically carries in the left inside pocket of his bomber jacket.
The venerable M1911 series certainly fits Papa’s preference for older items. The weapon was developed in the early 20th century by legendary firearms designer John Browning, first entering U.S. military service in 1911 as its designation implies. A slightly modified design, the M1911A1, was adapted in 1924 and it is this model most commonly seen.
McQueen had previously been armed with 1911 series pistols in one of his first starring roles, The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (1959), and in The Getaway (1972) when he carried a Colt Government pistol that alternated with a Star Model B for scenes where the weapon needed to be fired.
Beretta 950 Jetfire
Ralph Thorson also keeps a nickel-plated Beretta 950 Jetfire subcompact semi-automatic pistol in his bedside table, which he briefly demonstrates and hands off to his girlfriend Dottie (Kathryn Harrold) after his life has been threatened.
The Beretta Jetfire makes a brief appearance toward the end of the film when Thorson tapes it to his left ankle for an encounter with the deranged Rocco Mason.
Taping a pistol is a common movie trope, but it’s slightly more realistic when used for a subcompact pistol like the Beretta Jetfire which weighs no more than 9.9 ounces when unloaded.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie, and – if you’re interested in remembering McQueen the way he would want to be remembered – check out William Claxton: Steve McQueen for a dazzling photographic account of the iconic actor at his coolest.
I’m getting too old for this shit.